Phillies hopeful Halladay returns to stellar form

Posted: July 19, 2012

LOS ANGELES — The hope stretched into its fourth day, mixing with the frictionless SoCal air to fill the visitor's dugout at Dodger Stadium with a rare kind of warmth. Sitting at the edge of the dugout, Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee stared out onto the infield grass and contemplated the significance of the fast-approaching game.

"I'll look at several things," he said. "But I ain't telling you."

In a way, Roy Halladay's return from a 7-week layoff mirrored the juncture at which the Phillies find themselves. Their only option is optimism, but they can't quite disguise the uncertainty that lingers beneath a brave public face. Asked whether he believes his ace righthander can return to the form that saw him dominate the National League in 2010 and 2011, Dubee thought for a second before responding.

"If he stays healthy, if he's feeling healthy, then yeah," he said. "Time will tell. He's feeling good. That's the big thing."

The big question is how long that good feeling will last. The only hope for the Phillies' shrinking playoff chances lies in a rotation that has been plagued by injuries and uncharacteristic struggles this season. When Halladay went on the disabled list with a mid-grade lat strain in late May, Phillies starters had combined to post a 3.32 ERA. During his layoff, that number swelled to 4.72.

"You lose an anchor," Dubee said. "A steady anchor. Now, all of a sudden, your two guy has to feel like he has to pitch up to a one or a plus-one. The pressure and expectations on themselves increase. It's like when you move a five-hitter to the three- or four-hole. Now, all of a sudden, he has to be a bigger piece than he's ever had to be."

In reality, the Phillies spent much of the first 2 months of the season without their anchor. Through 11 starts, Halladay was 4-5 with a 3.98 ERA. His velocity was down, his pitches lacked their usual movement, and his strikeout rate was lower than it had been since 2007. At 40-51 and 10 games out of a playoff spot, the Phillies need more than a guy in a Halladay jersey taking the mound every 5 days. They need that guy to be Roy Halladay. In fact, they need their entire rotation to be something approximating that guy more often than not.

On Tuesday night, the early returns were inconclusive. Halladay retired the first three batters he faced, two of them via strikeouts, before running into trouble in the second inning, when he allowed two runs on four hits to cough up the Phillies' early 1-0 lead.

Decisions, decisions

In some ways, the Phillies' horrendous play in the month before the All-Star Break protected Charlie Manuel from having to make some difficult decisions with regard to his deployment of Chase Utley. For an example, see the scenario that could confront him before Wednesday's series finale at Dodger Stadium. Heading into Tuesday night's game, the Phillies had won three straight games. But it also was be Utley's second straight game in the lineup. Thus far, Manuel has kept him on a schedue of two games on, one game off. But what if the Phillies are carrying a four-game winning streak into a series finale against Clayton Kershaw?

Manuel remained noncomittal Tuesday afternoon.

"It's mine and Utley's call," he said. "But at the same time, we definitely still have to watch Utley. We definitely don't want to set him back. He's come a long ways, but there again, we definitely need him in there."

Utley is 4-for-17 with two doubles, a home run and three walks in his career against Kershaw.

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